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Rights Must Be Protected *and* Shared

Via Mike the Mad Biologist comes an excellent article entitled “Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand,” a reminder of the cost of those things we consider rights and assume cannot be taken from us.

Those who fought to achieve these rights endured tremendous suffering, pain and deprivation. It is they who made possible our middle class and opened up our democracy. The elite hired goons and criminal militias to evict striking miners from company houses, infiltrate fledgling union organizations and murder suspected union leaders and sympathizers. Federal marshals, state militias, sheriff’s deputies and at times Army troops, along with the courts and legislative bodies, were repeatedly used to crush and stymie worker revolts. Striking sugar cane workers were gunned down in Thibodaux, La., in 1887. Steel workers were shot to death in 1892 in Homestead, Pa. Railroad workers in the Pullman strike of 1894 were murdered. Coal miners at Ludlow, Colo., in 1914 and at Matewan, W.Va., in 1920 were massacred. Our freedoms and rights were paid for with their courage and blood.

American democracy arose because those consciously locked out of the system put their bodies on the line and demanded justice. The exclusion of the poor and the working class from the systems of power in this country was deliberate. The Founding Fathers deeply feared popular democracy. They rigged the system to favor the elite from the start, something that has been largely whitewashed in public schools and by a corporate media that has effectively substituted myth for history. Europe’s poor, fleeing to America from squalid slums and workhouses in the 17th and 18th centuries, were viewed by the privileged as commodities to exploit. Slaves, Native Americans, indentured servants, women, and men without property were not represented at the Constitutional Conventions. And American history, as Howard Zinn illustrated in “The People’s History of the United States,” is one long fight by the marginalized and disenfranchised for dignity and freedom. Those who fought understood the innate cruelty of capitalism.

Go read the whole thing. Give it some time to sink in. It’s highly likely that your economic education has been poor enough that it will take some time to grasp all the pieces. Reread it as necessary.

One thing to watch, though.

The liberal class has busied itself with the toothless pursuits of inclusiveness, multiculturalism, identity politics and tolerance—a word Martin Luther King never used—and forgotten about justice.

Be careful of arguments like this. I’m seeing too many of them lately.

There are ways to use identity politics to divide, yes, and the class of capital is as expert at these as they are at every other type of divisiveness. However, at their heart, the ideas of inclusiveness are little more than saying that where there are human rights to be had, we must fight the idea that some things legitimately exclude groups of people from claiming those rights.

We don’t even have to do it because it’s simply the right thing to do (although it is). When capital wants to chip away at human rights, it goes after those groups first. Union busting targets teachers, who are largely female (and who were much more valued when the profession was mostly male). School privatization targets inner-city schools, with large minority populations whom we’re told don’t stand a chance to succeed unless drastic measures are taken. Immigration “reform,” which increases the consequences of working illegally without any real hope of decreasing the numbers, targets Hispanics. Reality-based decision makers are pushed out of office as unacceptable religious minorities.

Little by little, they carve us away, push us apart, and reclaim what they believe is theirs. And for the most part, they let us do the work. It is no accident that the regressives demonize identity politics. Threatening us individually with the idea that no one will believe we are due our human rights works. It works very well.

It works even better when those on the left tell us that our concerns over those threats are just a distraction. They are not. Our rights were won by unions, but those rights have not been shared by all equally. Many of us have continued to be told we are not human, and not just by those on the right.

Unions require a certain amount of trust. Alliances are often uneasy, more uneasy the larger and more diverse they are. Denying the importance of identity politics, denying the call that we must all share in what we protect and what we regain, won’t build that trust. It won’t build those alliances. Instead, every time we’re told it’s unimportant, we have to spend the energy to explain one more time why that isn’t so. Just as I’m doing here.

So stop it, lefties. Leave patting us on the head and saying everything’s just fine to those on the right. Just acknowledge that, yes, it is every bit as important that we share in the reward as it is that we share in the work. Just commit to the idea that we’re every bit as human when it comes to human rights. That’s all.

Then we can get on with this thing. Together.